Thursday, December 13, 2007

Campbell's Law: No, It's NOT Soup

Thirty years ago, sociologist Donald Campbell made a seemingly obvious observation that became known as Campbell’s Law. As Campbell phrase it, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” To put it more simply, the more you base decisions like promotions, firings, or bonuses on a particular number or set of numbers, the more likely it is people will either cheat or otherwise try to game the system.

Cheating is, of course, nothing new in education, nor is it just students who do it. In fact, there’s a long and sad history around the U.S. of teachers and administrators manipulating standardized test results to inflate scores or protect their jobs or their schools’ reputations. Now the NY Daily News reports today that the Principal at Central Park East High School issued a memo to his staff last month suggesting that they scale down their expectations of students in order to raise pass rates and credit accumulation. Coincidently, yearly credit accumulation by 9th, 10th, and 11th graders just happen to be among those treasured metrics on the DOE’s new Progress Reports that assess every NYC public school with a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F.

Central Park East rated a low “B” on its Progress Report and a “Proficient” on its Quality Review. Principal James Lieberman is quoted in the Daily News that, “Really good things are happening here.” Of course, students like senior Richard Palacios tell you the real truth, noting that 65% of his classmates don’t even show up for school and that only three or four of the 15 kids in his math class routinely appear. Perhaps Lieberman’s recourse for such low attendance is correspondingly lower expectations. Teachers were reportedly outraged over their Principal’s memo.

Perhaps most disappointing in all of this is that the offending school, Central Park East HS, is the City’s icon of alternative schools since its founding in 1985 by Deborah Meier. This news brings a particular sting, the kind of chagrin one might feel upon hearing that the clergy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral were skimming 10% of the collections for use at OTB.

Sadly, we are all getting inured to these types of stories under the DOE’s perverted notion of accountability based on single, high stakes tests. Teaching to the tests and excessive prepping for the tests to the detriment of other subjects and activities, variable scaling of test results to manipulate pass rates, dumbing down the standardized tests by lowering p-scores, steering students to correct answers during test administration, post-test erasures and corrections made by teachers and principals, and so on. As long as 85% of a school’s Progress Report rating derives from test scores, you can be sure schools will focus on those tests to a fault, even to the detriment of other subject areas, and that the resulting pressures will lead to broken rules and broken trust. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of these stories between now and the end of the Klein era.


NYC Educator said...

While this principal may have put it in writing, he's not alone. That very same message has been resonating in my school for about two years now, and it clearly originates from Tweed.

Anonymous said...

Someone should look into the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy. Perfect example of Campbell's Law. One of the Top 100 schools according to 2009 US News and World Report, because of high number of students enrolled in AP classes. I wonder how it would look to them if they actually looked at student performance: students who fail the NYS Regents Exams (widely acknowledged to be "easy" tests) multiple times are pushed into AP classes just to score higher on this list!

peter patrick glancy campbell said...

campbells ozone trust could cure your cancer? click www.bob beck prodical

George Dinwiddie said...

See, also, <a href=">Goodhart's Law</a>

George Dinwiddie said...

See, also, Goodhart's Law